The following series of 50 cigarette cards produced by the Imperial Tobacco Co. of Great Britain for Players Cigarettes purports to show interesting scenes from across the vast expanse of the British Empire. It is a fascinating glimpse not only into the cultures that made up the empire upon which the sun never set, but also into how British imperialism was celebrated.
In modern times is difficult to understand, and rightly so, the mindset in which imperialism was considered a source of pride rather than shame. People in the west today often shy away from words denoting any kind of excess of nationalism or patriotism, perceiving them as racist affronts to multicultural values, let alone holding a belief that for their culture to dominate and exploit others was a manifestly good thing. Yet empires from Babylon to Rome to Britain have arguably been history's dominant vehicle of cross-cultural exchange. The movement of goods and peoples across a unified political body exposed the average person in them to a variety of cultures, foods, religions, arts, and ways of life. This is not to excuse or deny the horrors of imperialist regimes, but simply to recognize that empires are complicated entities.
There is a more interesting question implicit to the sort of exercise in imperialism that these cards represent. It would be easy to dismiss them as artefacts of a disgusting episode in recent human history... It is more challenging to ask of the extent to which modern ideas of multiculturalism are themselves a colonialist, imperialist project.
These cards are from the amazing Digital Collections of the New York Public Library. Click on a card for a larger view.